Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 2015
Start Date: 1st Feb 2015
Start Time: 10:00


The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

We are born to become, not just to be. We are born to grow, change, develop. That's the assumption of all education of young people. Increasingly it's the assumption for adult life too. Life-long learning, in-service training, and personal development, are now reckoned essential, not just desirable. Learning new technical skills is also vital. A driving test, I'm told, will soon require learners to handle a satnav not just a gear shift and a 3-point turn (though of course you'll still need the 3-point turn as well when your satnav leads you literally up a garden path!). But it's not just new technical skills we need. There's pressure to learn new ways of being human, not just of driving a car. Pressure to throw off old prejudices, learn new attitudes, gain new personal capacities. Read lifestyle and celebrity sections in weekend magazines and you'll see what I mean. Whether by wellbeing or mindfulness, a diet or a new degree, the pressure is on to become different. It's social pressure. It also feels like moral pressure.

This isn't entirely new. Long ago Sophocles used drama to show how a good life includes character development; the nineteenth-century novel did much the same. But I do think this pressure to develop ourselves is more marked now. Our post-modern world of film, theatre, novel-writing, revels in unresolved plots and open endings precisely to keep making us think of new options, new interpretations of ourselves.

So, in these February sermons, I'm going to ponder this pressure on us. Next week I'll challenge some aspects of it. But to begin with today I want to endorse it overall. For it is, I believe, central to our faith, not just to our culture, that we should indeed develop—we should keep changing, as St Paul puts it 'from one degree of glory to another'.

It's vital for two reasons. First, simply because of sin: we all fall short of what we could be because we all have some moral and spiritual failings, in ourselves and our relationships, which need some kind of change. In traditional terms, we do all need a process of sanctification.

But there's another reason. We also need to change simply because we're not born ready-made. This isn't a moral deficiency, it's just a fact of our nature as organic beings that we do not come into the world as a finished product, but more like a biological flat pack which needs growing and assembling, with the help of others. This is part of our intended meaning and purpose in life: to develop, through relationships with others and God, into more that we are on our own: it is part of what we're for. It is part of what it means to be made in the image of God: to become who we fully can be by a process of developing relationships mirrors the very being of God in Trinity—who makes Herself fully God by virtue of these dynamic relationships within the Trinitarian life.

The idea that change and becoming even occur in God isn't uncontroversial. In the early centuries of the Church, influenced by Greek philosophy, God was imagined to be utterly changeless, and talk of God changing was considered heretical.

But these metaphysics have themselves changed. The searing suffering of the twentieth century, especially the holocaust we are commemorating this week, has led many theologians to insist that only a God who Himself suffers and changes, can be truly a God for and with us in our suffering and change. Science too has had an effect. It has shown how all levels of reality, from sub-atomic particles to the macro level of stars and galaxies, are essentially processes of flux and change. And that makes it increasingly difficult to think that the Creator of all this does not Himself have some experience of flux within His own being.

This needn't mean that God's change and becoming is wholly like ours. God is by definition a unique reality. So perhaps we should imagine change in the transcendent God to be an already complete process, already perfected in an eternal present rather than spread out incompletely through time in the way our becoming has to be. That would rightly reassure of God's ultimate reliability and stability (which is the real concern expressed in the hymn: 'change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me'. Even so, because this perfect completion in God is still constituted by change, not just by sterile static-ness, it's a view of God which endorses change itself—change is a glory not a deficiency.

The clearest example of this is in Jesus himself. God in the human Christ, although not needing change as a sinner, still had change in other ways, to grow in wisdom. One story demonstrates this particularly well: his encounter with a Gentile woman (a person of low status in his culture). The woman asked Jesus to help her sick daughter. Initially Jesus refused, saying it's not fitting to give help intended for Jews to Gentiles. The woman persisted. And at that point Jesus seemed to change his mind; he helps after all.

Biblical commentators from Calvin to the present have contorted themselves to interpret it in a way which means he did not change at this point. They feared it would imply some moral deficiency in him. But that's surely not the case. Jesus as a Jew of his time would have naturally shared in initial prejudices about a Gentile woman; but there's no personal moral culpability, no sin, just in inheriting a narrow vision or prejudice. How could he not, if truly human? Sin only arises when we fail to grow out of it when given the chance, and that is precisely where Jesus did not fail. When he truly encountered the woman, he saw, learnt, and he did change. And that's where his perfection lay—precisely in his willingness to change.

It is an example, of course, which has obvious and particular challenge for us. When people of different gender, race, custom, are caught in the radar of our inevitable prejudices, a critical choice is presented to us and our society: do we retrench, or are we willing to see differently, to change?

To be willing to change: it's not just contemporary fashion. It's an imperative of our very being. Metaphysics, morals, biology, theology alike tell us that change and development are vital. It is what we're for as children of God—we're born for it. And so, in this life at least, we should not seek to evade it, not even in older age.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure